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Theatre in Review: Pygmalion (Bedlam/Sheen Center)

Annabel Capper, Edmund Lewis, Vaishnavi Sharma, Eric Tucker, Nigel Gore. Photo: Ashley Garrett

The people at Bedlam are much more respectful of George Bernard Shaw than James M. Barrie. Only a few months ago, they sliced and diced Peter Pan into a nearly incomprehensible performance piece seemingly designed to violate the original text in as many ways possible. It was, apparently, a spoof, but of what never became clear. Perhaps because they're afraid of Shaw's restless spirit -- if any playwright could return from the dead, armed with a full set of notes, it is he -- his Pygmalion is kept intact, more or less, at an intermissionless two hours and twenty minutes. And yet, Eric Tucker, who directed and stars as the supercilious language expert Henry Higgins, has found many ways to muddy the Shavian waters.

Before the play begins, we enter a kind of holding pen that is defined by a convex curved wall on which audience members can hang their coats. The actors quietly infiltrate the crowd and, without warning, launch into the first scene, which introduces most of the major characters outside of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. It's an exercise in organized chaos: Depending on where one is standing, the principals might be impossible to see; one occasionally glimpses a head bobbing above the crowd. Adding to the confusion, some actors double their roles, switching hats and characters simultaneously. If there is a less felicitous way to begin a production of Pygmalion, I have yet to see it. If you are unfamiliar with the play, all I can say is, God help you.

Once the scene has concluded, the audience is ushered into a U-shaped space with raked seating, where the rest of the play will be performed. Instantly, another problem presents itself. Tucker is, in many ways, well-equipped to play Higgins; he captures the character's self-absorption as well as his blindness to the needs and sensitivities of others. One easily accepts him as a middle-aged bachelor who has forsworn women, instead devoting himself to intellectual pursuits. But he is equipped with one of the least convincing British accents since Dick Van Dyke scandalized the United Kingdom in Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. (As someone who works with and counts dozens of Brits among my friends, I can testify: They're still complaining about Van Dyke's awful accent.) In any other play, this would be lamentable, but one could live with it. But Higgins, as written, is so alive to the nuances of speech that he can identify a stranger's birthplace with pinpoint accuracy; this may be the first Pygmalion in which Higgins needs speech lessons as much as Eliza Doolittle.

Eliza, by the way, is played by Vaishnavi Sharma, who has done good work with Bedlam in the past. (She was an authoritative Arkadina in the company's production of The Seagull.) Tucker has taken advantage of the actress' Indian roots to make Eliza an immigrant from Delhi; it's an interesting idea but, in the early scenes, Sharma rattles off her lines so rapidly, and in such a thick accent, that they are all but incomprehensible. Even more confusing, Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, is played by Rajesh Bose -- also of Indian ancestry -- in the standard manner, with a ripe cockney accent. How are we to square this circle? This lack of precision where it should matter most is one of the production's most confounding aspects.

(About the choice of an obviously older actress to play Eliza, I'm ambivalent. Mrs. Patrick Campbell was forty-seven when she created the role, and the idea of a big age gap between Eliza and Higgins is a convention that seems to have been set, rather late in the day, with My Fair Lady's original cast. Still, it seems to me that the script subtly indicates, in many ways, that Eliza should be rather younger than Higgins. Her constant insistence that she is a "good girl" and the lack of any evidence that she has had any romantic entanglements suggest that she is on the sunny side of twenty-five; in 1912, a woman of her class would very likely have ended up with a husband or lover(s) before she was very far into her twenties. Also, in the later scenes, when Eliza has emerged as a genteel, well-mannered lady, Sharma's polished technique makes her seem far more sophisticated than is perhaps suitable. Still, the actress makes a formidable antagonist for Tucker's Higgins.)

Then, there is Tucker's penchant for cutesy, aren't-we-clever devices, especially in the scene depicting the tea party at Mrs. Higgins' home, where Eliza makes her first, and nearly disastrous, debut. Eliza has mastered Received Pronunciation, but her grasp of grammar remains shaky and her conversation, mostly regarding her family's sordid history, is guaranteed to upset polite society. Very little of this comes through, however, because aside from Tucker and Sharma, each actor plays two roles, and it becomes a scene about actors swapping hats. Equally mystifying is the casting of Edmund Lewis as Mrs. Higgins; there's nothing inherently wrong about making this into a drag role if you have an actor with the right comic technique. (One instantly thinks of Brian Bedford's Lady Bracknell at Roundabout Theatre Company several years ago.) But Lewis' delivery is marked by a relentless overemphasis that mars the humor. Actresses playing Mrs. Higgins usually land their laughs by throwing away her lines -- her imperturbably correct manner is a silent rebuke to her son's native rudeness -- but Lewis stomps on his character's best punch lines.

The production is by no means a washout. Nigel Gore is an impeccably urbane and refreshingly non-doddering Colonel Pickering and Bose is a classic Alfred, railing wittily against the poisonous influence of "middle-class morality." The most interesting innovation is Annabel Capper's performance as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' housekeeper, here portrayed as a strong-minded manager who repeatedly locks horns with her employer. It's a concept that is totally supported by the text: "Mrs. Pearce will row if we leave these things lying about in the drawing-room," Pickering says after Eliza makes her big social debut. And Eliza says of Mrs. Pearce, "Time and again she has wanted to leave you; and you always got round her at the last minute." It's too bad that Capper is reduced to mugging in her other roles, as one of Mrs. Higgins' maids and the young socialite Clara Eynsford-Hill. (As has been the case with every Bedlam production I've seen, there is little of interest in the production's design.)

Even under these circumstances, there are enjoyable stretches, most notably the final confrontation between Higgins and the newly emboldened Eliza. Our last view of Higgins, alone and looking like a lost soul, is striking, but this is yet another Bedlam production defined by strategies and devices that don't really add up to a coherent vision. Tucker and his collaborators seem to be addicted to what works in the moment, with little consideration of the overall effect. Shaw was an extraordinarily precise playwright and essayist; the least one should expect of a production of his work is a bit of the same rigor -- David Barbour

(28 March 2018)

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